Sri Lankan president imposes order on essential public services, banning strikes by electricity and health workers

On Wednesday evening, Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse published an extraordinary gazette declaring electricity and health essential public services and banning strikes in these sectors.

Ceylon Electricity Board employees demonstrate outside the head office on November 3, 2021 (WSWS Media)

The immediate aim of the executive order, which was issued under the country’s draconian Essential Public Services Act (EPSA), was to stop a planned strike by Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) workers from midnight . The key sector has more than 26,000 employees. The strike was called by the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers Union (CEBEU) and the Ceylon Electricity Board United Trade Union Alliance (CEBUTA).

According to the EPSA decree, any employee of the designated establishments who does not report for work incurs “a conviction, after referral to a magistrate” and will be “liable to a prison sentence” of two to five years and/or fine of 2,000 and 5,000 rupees (US$5 to US$13).

The “movable and immovable property” of convicts can be seized by the State, and their name “cancelled from any register kept for profession or vocation”. It is also an offense for anyone to “incite, induce or encourage any other person” not to report for work by “a physical act or by speech or writing”.

Unions have called a strike to protest against a 2009 amendment to the CEB law proposed by Energy and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara, allowing investments in the “renewable energy sector” without tenders . The amendment removes a paragraph from the law stipulating that the license for the investment must be granted to the bidder who provides the electricity at the lowest price. Desperate to attract investment at all costs, the government may arbitrarily decide on investment opportunities.

CEB unions denounced the amendment, saying the government planned to hand over the country’s wind and solar resources to the Adani Group, a large Indian multinational, without a tender process. They also demanded an end to moves towards the privatization of the CEB and the appointment of a suitable professional with an “unblemished character” as CEB chairman.

The unions, however, immediately capitulated to the Rajapakse Essential Services Gazette and called off the strike.

CEBEU chairman Anil Ranjith told the media that Rajapakse had called him and promised to consider the union’s demands during the committee debate in parliament. Ranjith also claimed that if the current amendment passes, “we will not hesitate to resume our industrial action with immediate effect.”

Rajapakse’s “promise”, like Ranjith’s threats, was meaningless, as the amendment was passed by a majority in the Sri Lankan parliament on Thursday.

At the same time, the Colombo District Courts, at the request of the CEB management, issued a restraining order preventing the CEBEU from “disrupting the supply of electricity to the general public following a strike “. The order constitutes a judicial ban on the strike and is valid until June 22, when the union leaders must appear in court. Ignoring the order would be considered contempt of court and punishable.

None of the opposition parties, including Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA), opposed the Essential Public Services Ordinance.

Leading SJB MP Harsha De Silva failed to win support for an opposing amendment allowing small investors to bid on tenders, further demonstrating that the SJB has no fundamental differences with the government’s agenda. JVP parliamentarians registered a symbolic opposition vote against the government’s amendment.

Power and Energy Minister Wijesekara told parliament that the government would “not pander to union terrorism”, a reference to CEB workers and not union bureaucrats who had already called off the strike. He also called on security forces to protect hydroelectric reservoirs, saying “acts of sabotage” were happening.

Sri Lanka’s original Electricity Act of 2009 paved the way for private companies, cooperatives and local government bodies to compete with the state-owned CEB in all aspects of generation, transmission and distribution. electricity distribution. The current amendment, which allows private investment, including international investors in the renewable energy sector, is another element of the restructuring and eventual privatization of the CEB, a long-standing demand of the International Monetary Fund (IMF ).

Facing mass protests across the country and two general strikes in April and May demanding his resignation as president and the removal of his government, Gotabaya Rajapakse appointed pro-American politician Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister on last month. Wickremesinghe, the sole United National Party representative in parliament, is responsible for implementing the IMF’s austerity demands. He has repeatedly stated that loss-making public enterprises cannot be maintained and must be privatized.

Yesterday the media reported that the CEB lost Rs 65 billion in the first quarter of this year. Electricity prices will soon be increased, with CEB management proposing a 300% hike, which will have a huge impact on workers and the poor.

CEBUTA leader Ranjan Jayalal (WSWS Media)

The union’s criticism of the amendment bill is hypocritical. Announcing the cancellation of the strike, CEBUTA leader and JVP central committee member Ranjan Jayalal said: “This bill allows the Indian company Adani to have a monopoly in this sector. If there is a competitive bidding process, national and international investors should also be allowed to participate.

In other words, the union is not opposed to “competition” in the electricity sector but wants it to be extended. He was forced to call a strike to dissipate workers’ anger over the government’s privatization drive.

Last year, the government of Rajapakse decided to sell 40% of the Kerawalapitiya LNG power station to the American company New Fortress Energy Company. Unions have called for limited protests and filed a lawsuit, saying it will help force the government to reverse its decision. Predictably, the courts backed the government’s deal and the unions accepted the ruling and ended their protests.

Over the past two and a half months, CEB unions, together with other unions, have worked to divert mass anti-government protests and strikes behind the SJB and JVP’s calls for interim rule and legislative elections.

As previously reported, Rajapakse’s draconian essential services decree applies to the health sector where workers are deeply hostile to government cuts in overtime pay. As health workers have staged strikes and protests at several hospitals, health unions have put an end to those protests, accepting ‘assurances’ from the Health Ministry that it will repay reduced benefits at some point. given in the future.

The new EPSA decree prohibiting strikes by electricity and health workers is a warning to the entire working class.

Deeply mired in the global crisis triggered by the pandemic and intensified by the US-NATO war against Russia in Ukraine, the Sri Lankan capitalist class is determined to impose the economic burden on workers and the poor, including including through the use of dictatorial measures.

As the past three months have again revealed, the survival of the capitalist elite and its government depends on the betrayal of the unions.

CEB workers, health sector employees and all other sections of labor cannot defend their democratic and social rights without a political struggle against the Rajapakse-Wickremesinghe regime and a struggle for a workers’ and peasants’ government based on socialist and internationalist policies.

As the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) explained, workers must take matters into their own hands by creating action committees in all workplaces and working-class suburbs, independent of unions and capitalist parties, and in unity with their class brothers and sisters internationally.